Competitions are all the rage in the social enterprise world. From New York to San Francisco, organizations seeking to nurture emerging social entrepreneurs have decided to go all in on the pitch session, offering the winners start-up funds and technical assistance. Good idea, right?

Our friend, Rolfe Larson, of Rolfe Larson Associates, a social enterprise consulting firm based in Denver, is not convinced. To weigh the pros and cons of competition in the social sector, he posed the question to social entrepreneurs online (in the npEnterprise Forum, which is no longer active).

Here’s what he learned from the community:

Too much about winners and losers?
Winning a competition can be great rush of joy and resources for an emerging SE. But what about everyone who does not win? Are they “losers” or just not as showy? “While these events are great opportunities for entrepreneurs to perfect their pitches and get quick and dirty input on their ventures, the focus on winners and losers in a fly-by manner is not always helpful,” Paul Lamb said.

Undermines Innovation?
In a recent Fast Company article written by Kara Penn and Anjali Sastry, the authors noted, “Those of us who study innovation know that everything hinges on the hard, sometimes tedious work of taking a promising idea and making it work — technically, legally, financially, culturally, ecologically.” The article continues, “Innovation is usually a lurching journey of discovery and problem-solving. As a result, it’s an iterative, often slow-moving process that requires patience and discipline.” 

That rarely happens when all the focus is on that five-minute pitch. 

Collaboration Is Better!
Many of the subscribers voiced a preference for collaboration. Aaron E-J’s opinion was that “collaboration is a way better model for development (in most cases) than competition. Whereas competition goes down to the bottom line – who can present the best instead of what actually is best – collaboration does not worry about what individual or company can dominate and instead focuses on what ideas, actions and products best suit a given need.”  

Said Lamb: “What might be more useful are collaboration events where social entrepreneurs, investors, experts and others explore synergies and partnership opportunities.” He further notes, “In many of the SE classes I teach, entrepreneurs often discover commonalities and ways they can partner with and assist each other. In setting them up as competitors, this is much less likely to occur.”  

Kevin Jones wrote in to say that “collaboration has a cost and startups sometimes or usually can’t afford it broadly but can afford it strategically as they drive toward their explicit milestones and deep goals.”

Don’t Give up on Competitions!
Hannah Pechan, former director at Social Enterprise Alliance-Nashville, countered “there’s a place for both competition and collaboration. Running a competition is a time-finite project. In contrast, fostering continued collaboration is an ongoing commitment. I agree that collaboration is important, as there is, of course, more work to be done than just a single winner can accomplish.

“It’s not an either/or approach, it’s a both/and, in which competitions help to spur on a few very needed winners (and I would argue, the movement as a whole) and collaboration works to raise the tide and create more widespread progress.”

Lamb got the final word: “I’m not advocating that we get rid of competitions altogether, but that we look at other creative ways to bring our community together and help lift each other up.”

At Social Impact Architects, we believe the social sector works best when competitors collaborate with each other in what we call coopetition. What do you think? We’d love to hear your opinion on the value of competitions and collaboration in the social sector.


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